Brother, Brother – A Memoir Journey

Some American soldiers in Vietnam never came home. Some came home, but were never the same.

Rich Duffy joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1964 at the age of 18, and was sent to the front as a Forward Observer – one of the most traumatizing and dangerous posts imaginable. Then while deep in the jungles, he received a “Dear John” letter from the young wife he’d left behind.

“The brother I knew, the one who left, didn’t return,” says Rich’s younger brother, Dan. “In a way, Rich’s first disappearance happened sometime during his one-year tour of duty. Then in 1969, after Rich came home, he disappeared a second time, this time out of my life completely. His girlfriend mailed my mother a cryptic postcard saying, ‘Rich and I went to the Rio Grande, took LSD, and when I awoke he was gone.’ We never heard from him again.”

It’s been fifty years, now, since Rich disappeared.

Rich Duffy in his post as a forward observer in Vietnam, March, 1968.

A Quick Introduction:
Brother, Brother is Dan’s memoir about his family and his quest to find out what happened to his missing older brother. With an intriguing blend of fact and fiction, Dan tells the story as if his brother is sitting right beside him as they recreate Rich’s fateful journey to the Rio Grande in a candy apple red ’66 GTO convertible.

Dan kindly shared his successful memoir writing journey with us, plus some helpful tips for how he took his book from inspiration to reality.

Q&A With Dan Duffy:
 Q: What made you decide to write this book? And how long did it take, from start to finish?
A:  Every December since my older brother Rich’s mysterious disappearance in 1970, I’ve been haunted by images of his disappearance beside the Rio Grande River. Could he still be living somewhere in the cash economy, leaving no paper trail for me to follow? Or did he drown without a trace in the Rio Grande there in Corrales, New Mexico?

Over the years I’ve tried every avenue I could think of to try to solve the mystery. In the mid-’70s, I drafted a letter describing Rich and the circumstances of his disappearance. This was the pre-internet age, so I contacted a mailing list company and sent letters to over 100 men who shared his name. No luck. I used his social security number and military service number to inquire about any recent activity. No luck. I had the Veteran’s Administration forward a letter to his last known address. No luck. I conducted driver’s license searches of his name in four Western states. No luck.

Finally, after I retired from my administrative career in higher education, I decided to put pencil to paper in the hopes of articulating and understanding Rich’s experience in Vietnam, his conversion to a “Jesus freak,” and his decision to move to the Southwest, where he disappeared under such mysterious circumstances. This book was the result.

All told, it took me three-and-a-half years to complete the book. I started in February, 2013, when I joined the “Open Mic” program at the Gloucester (Massachusetts) Writers Center, and began sharing some memories I’d written about growing up with my brother. I received good feedback, and set myself a goal of presenting new writing each month. Concurrently, I joined a writers’ group of six other writers. We met twice a month to read, review and critique each other’s writing. Their honest feedback was extremely helpful. It was also an excellent method to keep me and my fellow writers focused on our writing and editing. I finally published the book independently on Amazon on May 1, 2016 — my brother’s 69th birthday.

Q:  What was the hardest thing for you about writing this book? And how did you overcome that hurdle?  
A:  In 1959, my mother left my father, and moved Rich, me, and our three other siblings to the New Jersey Shore. As a single parent, she struggled to provide for us by waitressing, which often required her to work evenings and weekends.

For me, the hardest aspect of writing about that was recognizing that we kids had lived in such an atmosphere of silence: nobody dared to ask; nobody dared to tell. At the time, I didn’t know any other kids who lived in a broken home. So we never talked about things like our estranged dad, our absentee mom, kids having to supervise kids, teenagers hanging out at the house each night, or Mom dating a man we called Bill.

It was somewhat scary, in a way, to discover how I’d really felt about being adrift, in the absence of adult supervision. But writing about my early family circumstances also made me realize that I had broken free of any real or imagined “cycle of poverty” that my mother’s divorce may have fostered. I’ve been the only one from my family who ever attended and graduated from college. I’ve been fortunate to have continued my education, obtaining A.A., B.A., M.Ed, and Ed.D. degrees. For me, education was a pathway to my future success, both personally and professionally.

As Barack Obama has said, “Every man is trying to live up to his father’s expectations or make up for their father’s mistakes.” Obviously, I fell into the latter category.

Q:  What (and maybe who) helped keep you going? Did you feel like your brother was there speaking in your ear, encouraging you to tell his story?
A:
  I am grateful to many individuals who engaged me along my writing journey. Some urged me on from ahead, and others exhorted me from behind, but most – my fellow writers — accompanied me by my side. That’s a metaphor, but even in the physical world it’s often “journeying together” that provides the encouragement people need to explore new horizons and traverse unfamiliar territory in the first place.

My wife, Helene, and six members of my writers’ group read my early drafts, provided constructive feedback and advice, and encouraged me to continue writing.

I also truly believe that my brother Rich was beside me while I typed my final draft, guiding my hands and providing encouragement. I might have even “channeled” him from time to time as I thought about several of his nightmarish Vietnam War experiences that left him with PTSD.

Rich Duffy, January 1968, in Vietnam.

Q:  You’ve used a fascinating blend of both fact and fiction, weaving in your own recollections with a fictionalized account of your brother’s journey. Did the process of writing help you come to peace with your brother’s disappearance, imagining what he went through and experienced?  
A:  Although my brother was the focus of my story, it’s really about the impact of his life on mine. So my memoir includes fragments of distant memories of my older brother’s life and our shared eighteen years.

I yearned to better understand Rich’s war experiences, which left him with a “nervous condition.” Today, it’s diagnosed as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.) So, I’ve included my own mental images of his Vietnam and post-Vietnam experiences. I’ve also used my imagination in reconstructing his 1970 cross-country trip to New Mexico. The “journey” with my brother in the book is equal parts myth and reality, as my first wife and I took our own cross-country drive in the Summer of ’72.

I smile when I reread some segments of the book describing Rich and me playing together. Those memories continue to bring me joy. But there are other portions of the story I’ve written that I’m unable to read aloud at book readings. The memories still seem so fresh and painful to remember.

Writing my story did bring me closer to Rich. Describing our shared cross-country trip – fictional though it was — added to the sense that he was alive and still with me. But after I published the book, I’ve learned even more about my brother’s last year of life, before he disappeared. So my own search is continuing. I still have several avenues of investigation I want to pursue to try to discover what happened to him.

The closest I could say I’ve come to “closure” was when I visited Corrales, New Mexico several autumns ago, and walked along the area of the river known as North Beach, the location where he had disappeared. As I stood in the wilderness beside the mighty Rio Grande River, I was overcome with a feeling of serenity and thought, “This would be a magnificent place to die.” Maybe Rich was trying to convey something to me from beyond the known.

Q:  How did you go about publishing your book? For many authors, this is the hardest part.  
A:  I’m the kind of learner who loves to examine resources. I read books about writing, and also visited several indie publishing websites to learn from others who had preceded me on my writing and publishing journey. I’ve included a list of publishing resources I’ve found helpful, below.

My learning style also emphasizes “learning by doing,” so Amazon’s KDP Self-Publishing Platform (www.amazonkdp.com) was a good fit for me, and that’s what I used to get my book in print. For indie writers, the best part about Amazon KDP is that it’s free. Aside from maybe the cost of a cover design, there’s no cost to publish your book (they also have a free cover-creation tool). The KDP platform also offers an Indie Publishing Community where you can ask questions and receive advice from others who have already published their books.

For the writing process itself, I used the Scrivener software. This allowed me to do things like reorder chapters by “dragging and dropping” them, a function that Word doesn’t offer.

Q:  What advice would you give to other memoir writers, based on what you’ve learned along the way? 
A:  I’d say, simply begin writing. Don’t necessarily think about beginning to write a 300-page memoir. Focus on memorable “scenes of your life” and write about what happened, and most importantly, articulate how you felt about the experience.  Author Anne Lamott’s advice is to give yourself permission to write a “shitty first draft.” By that, she means, get your thoughts and experiences down on paper without worrying about correct spelling or grammar at first. You’ll have plenty of time to edit your writing after you have something written.

I’d also advise beginning writers to create a time and place for your writing. Bestselling author Andres DuBus III suggests getting up an hour earlier than you normally would or staying up an hour later to concentrate on your writing. “Your book doesn’t care how tired you are,” he said at the Newbury Writer’s Festival.

Join other writers in a writing group, even if it’s just two of you who meet every other week to read each other’s writing, give each other honest critiques, and hold each other accountable for meeting your next meeting’s deadline for new material.

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Dan Duffy kindly shared these resources he’s found helpful:

The Craft of Writing:

Publishing Resources for Indie Writers:

  • Book Publishing for Beginners, Paul G. Brodie, www.BrodieEDU.com
  • Successful Self-Publishing, Joanna Penn, www.TheCreativePenn.com
  • Write, Publish, Promote, Deborah Martin
  • Self-Publish Your Book, Jessica Bell
  • 29 Truths from the Trenches of Self-Publishing, Author Basics (Steve Windsor and Lise Cartwright

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Find Dan’s book, “Brother, Brother,” at our Amazon Associates link here at Amazon.com! A portion of the proceeds from sale of his book will be donated to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
Rich’s brother, author Dan Duffy.

Capturing Oral History

    Oral history is a rich source of family and local information. But it’s an incredibly fragile source. Memories fade. Old-timers move on to whatever the next life brings.

     Does your local museum or historical society already have an oral history program capturing those elusive memories? If not, consider launching one!

Don’t you wish you could ask these guys about their life story?

     In just the last few years, my own community has lost more than a dozen local elders. And with each death, an encyclopedia’s-worth of memories and how-to knowledge has vanished.

       We’ve actually been lucky – the memories of at least a few of those elders were written down before they departed. But not every community has a formal or informal oral history program in place.
 
       Like to start an oral history program in your community? Here are a few tips and suggestions to help you get started!

(Image courtesy of TheGraphicsFairy.com).

How To Start Your Own Oral History Program:
       (1)  Decide just how wide you’re willing to cast your net. Are you only interested in preserving memories about your area? Or are you willing to capture the stories of folks with a fascinating past, even if they’re describing another town or country?
 
     (2)  Invite a group of potential volunteers to kick around the mechanics. Do you plan to just digitally record a series of interviews? Is someone a great videographer? Are there transcription services you can utilize to create a searchable print version?

Don’t forget to ask about specific buildings the person remembers! (Image courtesy of TheGraphicsFairy.com)

    (3)  Identify a small handful of local elders (say 4 or 5) whose oral histories you’d most like to preserve. Then appoint an outreach person to contact each elder to see if they might be willing to share their recollections for your project.
 
    (4)  Brainstorm a list of questions ahead of time, so you won’t forget to ask anything that’s really important. But don’t let a fixed written list dominate your interview. Conversations naturally tend to ramble – be willing to let that happen. Some of the most fascinating tidbits of information can pop up when you just let the conversation flow.

(Image courtesy of TheGraphicsFairy.com).

 Most of all, don’t wait! Reach out now, while you can. You’ll be so glad you preserved the precious memories that you did.
 
       Like more tips for collecting oral history? Check out our book for more helpful ideas and suggestions!

Find it here on our Amazon Associates link: https://amzn.to/2FhwMco

Tales of Resilience: How Our Ancestors Coped

I’ve been fascinated lately by the concept of ‘resilience.’

Our ancestors had it. Somehow they made it through wars and food shortages; terrible pandemics; losing a spouse or a child to disease or accidents.

And medical care? Well . . . some of the very best medical treatments back then would be cringe-worthy today. Sure, they had opium, laudanum, and whiskey to dull the pain. But just imagine trying to recover from a leg amputation during the Civil War, or an appendectomy in 1900.

The very best medical care a century ago might be cringe-worthy today.

Having a baby wasn’t just a happy event, one hundred years ago. It was a life-threatening one. Some parents watched child after child die before reaching adulthood, from accidents or illness. Families moved across the ocean or across the country in search of excitement and fresh opportunity. But that often meant they never got to see their loved ones or hometowns again.

And yet somehow, despite all their trials and sadness, people kept going. They found ways to bounce back and find joy in life again.

 So, how did they do it?

Let’s start with the obvious: People generations ago didn’t expect life to be easy. That’s number one, I think, in the resilience game: understanding that life’s joys and challenges come as a package deal. People back then knew they had to accept the “bitter with the better,” as the old saying goes. Somehow we’re not so geared for that, today.

Part two of our ancestors’ formula: Community really was a ‘thing’ back then. People shared the good and the bad with each other. Weddings were festive community-wide celebrations. Funerals were a time for communal grieving. There may have been petty rivalries, bickering, and disputes in those communities, too. But when pain and loss came along, you knew you weren’t facing the hard times alone.

Funerals were a time of communal grieving.

And perhaps the biggest resilience-secret from days gone by:  The connectedness of life meant important reasons to keep going. No matter what, the cows still had to be milked every evening. Family and friends still depended on you to put food on the table or get the hay in the barn. Today, too, simple daily routines reminding us how much we’re still needed can be an incredible steadying force when life throws us a curve ball.

Hope you’ll be thinking about the wonderful stories of resilience in your own family — they’re more great material for your memoir!

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Here are a few writing prompts about ‘resilience’ to help you get started:

* What ancestor or friend was a great resilience model for you? What challenges did they face, and how did they get through them?

* What group or community came together to support you when you really needed it, or were there to share a special happiness? How did that happen, and what did it feel like?

* What strategies have helped you recover from your own challenges or losses? What lessons have you learned about resilience that you’d like to “pay forward” and share with future generations?

Keep up the good work!

Food & Family History: Special Memories Often Start in the Kitchen

Serendipity gives me goosebumps. Just as I was about to write this post about “food memories,” I stumbled on a terrific example of this exact form of family-history writing.

From Billee’s Kitchen” is a great, simple collection of not only recipes but memories. Compiled in pdf form by Melissa Corn Finlay, it honors her grandmother, Billee Barton Corn. And you can read it for free, here!  It’s packed with Billee’s favorite recipes, from Shrimp Victoria and desserts to die for, and great family photos. But best of all,  it includes Melissa’s memories of her grandmother.

The table of contents from “From Billee’s Kitchen.” Her granddaughter included recipes, memories, and even home movies!

Born in 1918, Billee used to keep a jar of bacon drippings on her stove. (Sound like anyone you knew?) She went to bed every night with a Louis L’Amour novel in her hand. Granddaughter Melissa got sips of Billee’s favorite nighttime beverage (Dr. Pepper over ice) as she joined Grandma under the puffy down comforter. And Melissa can still recall the tantalizing smells of her grandmother’s apricot “fried pies.” Special memories indeed!

So, what fascinating nuggets of family history and memoir material might be lurking in your kitchen? And how can you easily preserve and share them?

  • Start by pulling out that old card file or family cookbook, and thumb through the recipes. What dishes were your parents’ favorites? And what do they say about your family’s travels or the way things were?

A simple recipe box can be a treasure chest of memories! 

  • What special culinary treasures have been handed down from long-gone relatives? I treasure my great-grandmother’s recipe for Burnt Sugar Cake just because it’s a legacy. And I love the visual image of my great-aunt’s recipe for Deep Dish Peach Cobbler, scrawled in her own spidery handwriting. How fun to know that these special treats once graced their tables, too, and how rewarding to pass the recipes along to future generations!
  • What memories do certain recipes bring back for you? I still remember the welcome smell of my dad’s Beans Bretonne simmering in the oven — a family favorite — as I walked in the back door after school. (In case you want to try it, here’s his recipe — with some hilarious comments from my sister.)

    Love the funny notes added to the directions.
  • And you might even find surprises tucked away in that old cookbook or filing box! As I was writing this story, I discovered a long-forgotten collection of old newspaper clippings in the back of our family recipe box. Domestic goddess that she was, my mother had tucked them away in the 1960s, preparing to be the perfect party hostess.
  • Sharing food-and-family memories doesn’t have to be a huge production. Make it  easy on yourself! You might simply copy those old family recipes and bind the pages together, or paste individual recipes into a small scrapbook, as my sisters did (see below). If you’d like to “pretty it up” as Melissa did in her family recipe book, just create a Word document with images, then convert that to a pdf for sharing.

Okay, that’s your Memoir Writing take-away for today:  Let favorite family recipes prompt your memories of both food and family!

And of course I’d love to hear what stories you remember.

Lost in World War I

It was going to be the “War to End All Wars.” But when America entered the dreaded conflict overseas in 1917, local draft boards all across the nation were forced to make awful decisions: choosing which of their community’s young men should be sent off to fight.

Here in Douglas County, Nevada, local County Clerk Hans C. Jepsen became one of the men tasked with service on the Draft Board. They did it the fairest way possible: a lottery was organized, so the men to be drafted would be chosen at random.

Hans C. Jepsen, Douglas County Clerk

Imagine Jepsen’s horror when the name that he picked was that of his own son, Earl.

Two other men were in the room when Earl’s name was drawn. According to family lore, they both urged Hans to simply put his son’s name back and draw again. Perhaps they knew that Earl wasn’t a likely candidate for the military because his eyesight wasn’t good. Or perhaps they sympathized with a father’s guilt in sending his own son off to war.

Whatever their reasoning, the honorable Hans C. Jepsen refused. His son Earl’s name had been chosen, and that was that.

The Army, however, wasn’t so sure. Earl’s poor eyesight was indeed a stumbling block, and they repeatedly refused to induct him. But Earl kept presenting himself. He wanted to serve his country, he said. And eventually, the Army relented.

Earl F. Jepsen in his military uniform, 1918.

Earl enlisted on June 26, 1918 and was assigned to the Infantry, and by August had been sent overseas to the war zone in France. In late September, he was assigned to Company B of the 308th Infantry (part of the 77th Division), just in time to march with them into the Battle of the Argonne Forest. During this lengthy battle, Earl’s company became separated from the rest of the Allied forces and was surrounded by German forces. (The 554 men in these units would later become known as the “Lost Battalion.”)

Earl F. Jepsen’s headstone in San Francisco. (There’s a bit of conflict on his date of death; other sources say he was killed October 5, 1918.)

Earl was assigned as a runner to the battalion’s field headquarters, a job so dangerous it was considered a suicide mission. Earl was killed by sniper fire October 5, 1918, while on patrol. Just five weeks later, on November 11, the Armistice was signed, ending the war.

Earl was 26 years old when he fell on the battlefield. His body was buried initially in France, along with other American casualties. Some three years later, thanks to funds raised here at home, his remains were brought home again to the States. He now rests at the Presidio in San Francisco.

Plaque honoring WWI Veterans at the old Courthouse in Minden, Nevada. The star by Earl F. Jepsen’s name signifies that he died during the war. (Photo courtesy of Harold Jepsen)

At the old Courthouse in Minden is a brass plaque, honoring those from Douglas County who served during World War I. And as you will see if you visit, Earl isn’t the only Jepsen to have served during this “War to End All Wars”: his brother, Hans R., and cousin, Hans  J., also are honored on the plaque. A simple bronze star beside Earl’s name signifies that he gave his life for duty.

This Veteran’s Day, we hope you will remember him — a local boy who did what he felt he must to serve his country.

The Story of Lame Tom: Finding Gifts Among Tragedy

The true “pioneers” of Alpine County were the native Washoe. But little was written about them in the early days. So it was a real treat to stumble across a 1927 Record-Courier article detailing the life of Markleeville resident “Lame Tom.”

In the early 1900s, Lame Tom (his real name was Assu) lived in a wickiup just below the old wooden schoolhouse on Schoolhouse Hill. By then, he was an elderly gentleman. He shared his humble abode with a friend with the euphonious name of Zon-ha-gen-mal-anay, popularly known as “Squealing Aleck.”

“Lame Tom” (Assu), about 1900 (courtesy of Alpine County Historical Society).

Lame Tom was a son of Chief Possic (or Possuk), a Washoe captain living near the Hot Springs who was said to have been a guide in the early days for John Fremont’s party. Noted basketmaker Dat-So-La-Lee married into their family.

In his youth, Lame Tom was acclaimed as a hunter. But tragedy struck one night while he camped out alone. A large, heavy log rolled off his campfire and onto his leg while he slept, and the burning wood pinned him “like a vise.”

The log pinned his leg like a vise.

The brave young man did the unthinkable: he amputated his own leg with a hunting knife to free himself, and “crawled many miles home” to his camp.

Amazingly, he survived. But Lame Tom could no longer hunt. Instead took up the art of arrowhead-making — soon becoming one of the “most proficient of all the arrowhead makers.” He would shape a flake of obsidian by cradling it in his palm with buckskin, then striking the edge of the stone with a piece of buckhorn (antler) lashed to a length of greasewood. The only person who could equal him was noted arrowhead-maker Poker Charlie (Tillebow Behang), another son of Chief Possic. (A little family rivalry, perhaps!)

Lame Tom, possibly outside his home on Montgomery Street in Markleeville. (courtesy of Alpine County Historical Society)

Lame Tom also crafted bows made of cedar and sinew, and would sell a bow and arrow set to local lads for “two bits” (25 cents). He also taught them how to weave snowshoes.

Due to his injury, Lame Tom was permitted to marry two wives, an important form of social support. Both wives were employed in or near Markleeville: Maley worked for the Musser family, while Susie was employed by Harriet Grover. Interestingly enough, Squealing Aleck (Lame Tom’s friend) had three wives, and an astonishing ten daughters.

Lame Tom passed away in 1910. So it’s a delight to be able to connect this photograph from the Alpine County Museum with his story, thanks to the old Record-Courier article from 1927.

Local arrowheads and display in the Washoe Exhibit at Alpine County Museum.

Stop in at the Museum next time you visit Markleeville: there’s more great information here about the local Washoe heritage, including this stunning collection of local arrowheads. Who knows, perhaps some of these might even have been crafted by Lame Tom (Assu) or his talented brother, Poker Charlie.

More unique history and undiscovered tales! Get your copy at http://www.Clairitage.com

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Special thanks to the Alpine County Museum for permission to share the photo of Lame Tom. Visit the Museum at the top of Schoolhouse Hill in Markleeville Thursday through Sunday from late May through October, summer hours 10-4.

Tips for Writing Your Memoir

Looking for some great tips to help you write your Life Story or Memoir?

Try these six tips from the summer issue of Calaveras County Genealogical Society’s newsletter!

LifeStory tips – Froghorn Summer 2018

Everyone has a great story (or three) to tell!

And for more in-depth help, check out our new ebook, “Writing a Memoir: From Stuck to Finished” on Kindle!

Memoir Writers: How to Create a Get-Organized Tool Kit

Writing a memoir or oral history? You’ll find it helpful to put together a Memoir Writer’s Tool Kit ahead of time! What to include??

Here is a list of tools in my own kit: things I’ve found especially helpful for memoirs/oral histories. And the good news: they’re all small enough to keep in a handy tote-along bag!

Camera – Today’s small-but-sophisticated cameras make it easy to capture not only your subject but also places and things that will illustrate their story. Perhaps it’s a shot of the house where they grew up. Or maybe they make beautiful quilts, baby clothes, or baskets. These all make great illustrations for a life story. And small cameras tend to be less-intrusive than giant ones, and are often more usable in any light!

Hand-scanner – One of the greatest innovations in recent years for genealogists and memoir writers is the introduction of small, portable scanners. With these you can easily copy old newspapers clippings, handwritten manuscripts, and other documents. They even do a darn fine job of copying old photos! (I have a VuPoint Magic Wand and love it!) Here’s an example:

Digital microphone – If you want to be certain you get a subject’s words exactly right, ask if you can record your conversation. Small digital microphones are great if your subject is willing to be recorded. (The one I use is a Sony).

Spiral-bound notepads – I’m a huge fan of small pads of paper — and I leave the *everywhere* to capture notes and ideas! (purse; bedside table; car). A great, simple way to record notes about ideas, stories, formatting. They don’t have to be fancy; just something like this:

Business cards – yes, you need a business card. Even if you’re not selling your history-writing skills, it’s the simplest, easiest way to share your email address and phone number. (Have you ever struggled to make out someone’s handwriting or couldn’t tell if that was a “3” or an “8” in their number? ‘Nuff said!) Helpful tip: make sure the font size on your card is large enough to be read by most people without searching for their glasses!

Pens – everyone has a favorite ink pen. Keep plenty of yours on hand.

Calendar or planner – whether you’re jotting down your next appointment or penciling in a target deadline or completion date, a good calendar is a must!

Consent form for oral history – It’s always a good idea to be sure you and your subject are on the same page. (There’s a sample form in my LifeStory Workbook.)

Laptop or iPad – If you’re a fast-fingered typist, note-taking can be a breeze on these portable devices. I love my iPad and it’s easy to add a wireless keyboard.

Extra batteries for any devices. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been grateful for this “extra batteries” advice! I keep extras with me for my hand-scanner and microphone. And be sure your camera, phone and tablet/laptop are charged up before you head out the door!

Magnifying glass – You never know when you’re going to want to scrutinize a faded handwritten letter or study a hard-to-make-out postmark. Bring a magnifier that will sharpen the details — preferably one with a light.

Sticky notes – You can’t have too many sticky notes. Big, little, or in-between, just make sure you keep some with you! They’re great for marking things to follow up on, jotting questions, and just keeping your life stories organized.

List of interview questions – Another important “keep yourself organized” tip: jot down the question you want to be sure you don’t forget before you go! (Helpful samples are also in the LifeStory Workbook)

Tote bag – And to keep everything together and ready to go out the door, pick up a fun tote bag. Look for one with zippered compartments like this one, so things won’t fall out. And for plain canvas, try adding your choice of an iron-on transfer for some extra fun.

 

Bonus List for Cemeteries:  Checking out cemeteries as part of your family research? In addition to a good camera (of course), be sure to pack along:

  • Whisk broom with soft bristles and a long handle to gently removes leaves and debris from gravestones without bending over, for photographs;
  • Spray bottle filled with water – a quick spritz with water helps with contrast in hard-to-photograph stones;
  • Tripod to keep your camera steady; and
  • Pocket rain poncho – Voice of experience here: you never know when Mother Nature is going to have her own ideas about the weather! Keep a cheap plastic rain poncho handy (the kind that folds up and can fit in your glove box or pocket)!

Hope you find these suggestions helpful for creating your own memoir or life story kit. Please let me know if you have other great ideas to add!

Looking for even more in-depth tips to help with memoir-writing? Check out our helpful new book!

Now available from Kindle!

Help Us Get These Great Photos Back Home!

Several years ago I bought some old photos — which arrived with a huge packet of other snapshots I hadn’t expected.  These black-and-white “bonus” pictures obviously  came from a family album of the 1920s, and are now nearly a century old. And that was the start of trying to unlock their mystery!

Most of these old photos were unlabeled, but a few names were sprinkled here and there. One cryptic caption in particular became the starting point for my hunt to learn more about these great images: “Grandma [and] Grandpa Spielvogel.” There’s Grandma, looking a little frail  — and a good bit out of focus. And there in the background stands Grandpa in his suspenders, still hale and hearty though perhaps in his 80s.

And then there was this nostalgic scene — evidently Grandma and Grandpa Spielvogel’s family farm. This one, at least, was marked with a location: Prescott, Michigan. (And you’ve got to love that car!)

There were other pictures, too, with partial names as tantalizing clues. Here is a fascinating image of Aunt Anna and Uncle Otto. Between them is Harley, roughly ten years old  and leading a horse. And there’s an affectionate Paul and Mildred, big grins on their faces and holding pails as if they were just out for blackberries.

Such a wonderful picture! But what was their story?

Spielvogel is a lovely German last name meaning “songbird.” But these photos definitely weren’t singing much information about their original owners!

I tried reaching out on the internet to every modern Spielvogel whose email address I could find — with zero success. A few photos mentioned sites in Ontario, so I tried local historical societies and even an Ontario genealogical group, but came up equally empty-handed. Finally, a friend plugged the Spielvogel name into Ancestry.com– and BINGO!! Finally, we have Grandma and Grandpa Spielvogel’s first names!

Grandma & Grandpa Spielvogels’ grave in Mich.

He was Paul Spielvogel, born in Germany in 1856. And his wife is Paulina Newbower Spielvogel, born in 1858, also in Germany. Paul and Paulina were the proud parents of four children: Elizabeth, Paul, Anna, and a girl named Bartlair. Grandma Paulina, it seems, was indeed frail; she died in 1929, just a few years after her picture was taken. Grandpa must have missed her terribly; he died in 1930, the very next year after Paulina passed away. Both are buried in the Catholic Cemetery in Whittemer, Iosco County, Michigan.

And with that small beginning, the story behind the photos began to come together! “Aunt Anna” was one of Paul and Paulina’s children, born in 1882. Otto was Anna’s husband — Otto Charles Fuerst.  And Harley was Anna’s and Otto’s son.

But exactly which  Spielvogel descendant once owned all these wonderful photos? We still don’t know for sure.

Son Paul married Mildred Alstrom, and they seem to have ended up in Detroit. Daughter Elizabeth married a fellow named Wayne. Bartlair doesn’t seem to be in the later picture. So if Anna was an aunt, the mystery photographer was likely a son of either Paul or Elizabeth — but who was he?

We know he liked to travel; there are snapshots of the U.S. Capitol and Pennsylvania Avenue in 1925 (then a wide-open street lined with Tin Lizzies). There are references to Mt. Vernon, Virginia and Lexington Avenue, New York. And there are photos taken in Vancouver and Bay City, Belle Isle and Island Lake.

Lillian Tuckey

A few more names are scrawled as possible clues: There’s Lillian Tuckey and what might be her sister, Florence. There’s a smiling Ruby and her beau, a young gent named Claire. There’s Leo with a hunting rifle.There’s a dapper lad with glasses named Lou. And here’s the best clue of all: a photo of “Herb and myself.”

The best clue of all: Herb and “myself”! But who was he??

But who exactly was the mysterious photographer who once owned these wonderful family photos?  And most important, does he have any descendants who would love to have them back?

They say that there are just six degrees of separation in this world — between friends, family, and friends-of-friends, we’re all connected. So we are reaching out to ask for YOUR help!! Do you know any Spielvogels? Anyone named Fuerst, or perhaps a contact near Prescott, Michigan? To someone, these nearly-one-hundred-year-old family photos would be a priceless legacy.

We’d love to find a way to get them back home!! Please let us know if you can help — and feel free to forward this post to anyone else who might know!

Memoir Writing: Getting Unstuck

It happens to every would-be memoir writer: your words somehow just stop flowing. Or maybe, despite good intentions, they never get started.

So you keep telling your kids you’ll get those family stories on paper. You ogle memoir books in the library and your local history museum. But when you sit down in front of that blank piece of paper or computer screen, a dozen urgent tasks popped up to drag you away, every time. Like . . . polishing the top of the fridge.

It’s oh-so-understandable and utterly common! But what do you do about it?! How do you go from “wannabe” memoir writer to “here’s my book”?

Even “bad” times make great memoir fodder!

Let’s start with what not to do:  Don’t kick yourself. Guilt won’t help you get words onto paper.

Here are three tips to try, starting right now, to help get your memoir launched and off to a running start:

(1)  Pull out your calendar.  That’s right — make a date with yourself and pencil “memoir time” in. Pick a day, pick a time, and block out half an hour. Just half an hour is enough to get you off to a rolling start! And here’s the magic kicker: before that first writing session ends, pencil in another date for your very next writing session. Things written down on a calendar tend to “happen,” especially when the commitment isn’t overwhelming (like half an hour). Before you know it, those memoir pages will start to add up!

(2)  Give yourself permission to start in the middle.  Some people had totally fascinating childhoods. But often our memories as a five-year-old aren’t the ones we most want to get down on paper.  Don’t get stuck thinking you have to write about your life chronologically. It’s okay to start with your most interesting stories — the ones you really want to write. You can always go back and fill in the backstory parts later.

Do you have happy memories of someone special?

(3)  Use prompts when you get stuck.  Talking with a friend, relative, or caring acquaintance about your life can often help get memories rolling again. It can also be helpful to hear what someone else wants to learn about. Ask that person to listen and ask you questions. Examples of helpful question “prompts” that can spur your writing on include:

When did you feel most special or proud?

Who was your favorite relative, and what is your happiest memory of them?

What was the first job for which you actually got paid?

What helped you survive the toughest times of your life?

I’d love to hear about your real-life struggles with memoir-writing! Leave me a comment below and I’ll try to include suggestions in future blog posts.